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Get an overview

During the early stages of your thesis work you need to get an overview of a given field, in order to clarify your research questions, your methods and your general approach. At this point you may find it useful to skim through a few different sources. Some of them will continue to be useful as your project progresses, while others will only be useful at the start.

Finding background information

  • Search the internet using for example Wikipedia and Google. Does your own subject area have useful online resources? Although you cannot use Wikipedia as a source, the articles often provide useful overviews of literature for further reading.
  • Find Norwegian news articles by searching in newspaper archives, e.g., ATEKST
  • Find official information such as reports, government white papers and statistics relevant to your topic by looking at websites such as www.regjeringen.no, the World Bank, or the OECD.

Locate scholarly literature

  • Consult reference works to get a basic idea of what is available. These are written by experts and often include a survey of key scholarly works.  Find master’s and doctoral theses by searching in Oria and in institutional archives.
  • Search in publications archives such as NORA and databases such as Cristin (Current Research Information System in Norway). The latter is used by institutions in the Norwegian health and higher education/research sectors for registering and reporting research activities.
  • Consult Norart for an overview of relevant articles in Norwegian periodicals
  • Search in cross-disciplinary and field-specific journal databases
  • Use the homepage of your library to find sources of relevance: UiO, UiB, HiB, NHH

Selecting sources

Consider what types of sources and literature are most relevant for your thesis. In some fields the most important sources are written texts or works such as pictures, music or films. Other fields rely mainly on empirical data. It might not be practically possible to collect your own data for a bachelor thesis, but you are expected to do so for a master’s thesis.

In the humanities and social sciences the terms primary, secondary and tertiary sources or literature are common. Primary sources are original works, collected materials and empirical data. Texts that describe primary sources are called secondary sources, whereas texts that summarize the literature of a field, like encyclopedias, are called tertiary sources.

Here are some examples of sources used in the humanities and social sciences:

  • Primary sources: Original works (literary works, film, music, photography, web pages). Historical sources (letters, maps, documents, manuscripts). Empirical data (interview materials, observations, statistics).
  • Secondary sources: Texts that describe and discuss the primary sources, for example scientific articles and monographs, theses, text books, articles in popular science magazines and op-eds in newspapers. If you were discussing the invisible hand of the market, Fernando Luis Gache and Dino Otero’s article “Adam Smith: The Invisible Hand or Confidence” could be a secondary source, where Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the nature and causes of the wealth of nations  from 1776 would be the primary. When working with original texts written in a language you do not understand, or when you are exploring a new field, use secondary sources such as textbooks to get a picture of the main ideas of the central researchers in your field.
  • Tertiary sources: Texts that are based on primary and secondary sources, such as bibliographies, encyclopedias and databases.

Many sources will not be pure primary, secondary or tertiary sources, but will contain elements of more than one category. Depending on how it is read, a text can either be  a primary or secondary source: If a social scientist describes the results of a statistical inquiry in an article, the article is a secondary source for those statistics. For a linguist studying the use of language within the field that the article belongs to, the text is used as a primary source.

Researchers in science, medicine and other similar fields, use a slightly different terminology. A text is never a primary source in the same sense as a novel can be in a literary study. Empirical data is always the source material for scientific and medical studies. In fields such as these the term data (or raw data) is used instead. The term primary literature refers to the scientific articles and reports that first describe data from experiments, fieldwork, clinical studies, etc. Texts that review and summarize the primary literature, like review articles or textbooks, are called secondary literature.

Keep track of your source material

By now you will have found enough information to form a general overview of your subject area. Keep track of your findings and think about how to use them in your thesis. Decide which sources to use: Write brief notes about your sources and how you plan to use them in your dissertation.

Tip! Keep note of page numbers – this will save you a lot of time later on.

Last updated: January 26, 2015

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